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The tongue is a complex muscular organ in the mouth and is made up of five parts. The five areas of the tongue perform different functions and are supported by separate nerves and blood vessels.
The five visible parts of the tongue are:
Each of these five parts works in tandem with the others to perform the critical roles of the tongue.
The tongue consists of muscles, nerves, and blood vessels surrounded by a thick layer of connective tissue. A unique mucous membrane forms the surface of the tongue.
The mucous membrane contains papillae, which aid in taste and saliva production. The root of the tongue includes the tonsils, which are bundles of lymphatic tissue, as well as glands that produce saliva and mucus.
The tongue is a digestive organ that aids primarily in eating and speaking. It may also play a role in breathing and other processes.
The tongue’s main job as a mobile, muscular organ is to help us eat and drink. It does this in several key ways:1
The tongue is essential to the process of speech. It works with the lips and the teeth to help us speak to each other.
The positioning and mobility of the tongue enable the formation of different shapes, which create the various sounds of verbal language. The intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the tongue facilitate this process.
If a tongue is damaged or doesn’t function properly, it may impede speech.
The tongue’s muscles help keep your airway open to allow normal breathing, especially when lying down.6 If the tongue shifts away from its correct position, it can block the airway and contribute to obstructive sleep apnea.
The tongue plays a vital role in other functions beyond eating, speaking, and breathing. Its other functions include:
The mucous membrane on the tongue’s surface contains the papillae, which are hairlike projections that give the tongue its rough texture. A healthy human tongue has a whitish coating of papillae.
The papillae play a few major roles as part of the tongue. They:
Taste buds are the cells that let you taste food and evaluate flavor. The basic tastes they can identify are:
There was once a widespread belief that different tongue regions were related to sensing each of the five different tastes. However, recent research found that the so-called “tongue map” does not exist.8
Experts suggest that areas of the tongue may be more sensitive to particular tastes, but taste buds can’t be sorted into distinct regions associated with each taste sensation.
The tongue is a complex organ composed of many muscles and nerves interlaced with one another. These components must work together for the tongue to function correctly.
Eight major muscles compose the tongue, divided into intrinsic and extrinsic muscles.
Intrinsic muscles are contained within the tongue and determine tongue shape. The four intrinsic muscles of the tongue are:2
Extrinsic muscles outside the tongue are responsible for attaching it to the mouth and determining its position. The four extrinsic muscles of the tongue are:2
The nerves connected to the tongue provide electrical signals to move its muscles and help it experience sensation. Several nerves innervate different areas of the tongue, including the:2
Blood supply to the tongue comes primarily from the lingual artery, which connects to the external carotid artery. The lingual vein carries deoxygenated blood out of the tongue.
The lingual artery branches from the external carotid artery at the tip of the hyoid bone. It then splits into four different arteries:2
The nerves, blood supply, and tongue muscles allow the organ to function as it should.
A healthy tongue is pink with a whitish coating formed by the papillae.
If your tongue is a different color, such as red, yellow, or black, you may need to contact a doctor and improve your oral hygiene.
Many conditions can affect the tongue, which may or may not require treatment. Some common tongue conditions include:
Ankyloglossia is more commonly known as a tongue tie. It’s when a person has a short lingual frenulum.
The lingual frenulum is the portion of tissue underneath the tongue that connects the underside to the bottom of the mouth. It may extend as far as the tip of the tongue in people with ankyloglossia.
A tongue tie limits tongue movements and can present challenges with speaking, eating, and swallowing. Treatment typically involves surgical intervention.
A fissured tongue occurs when there are small grooves or fissures on the dorsal surface of the tongue. It affects about 5% of the US population and is more common in males than females.9
The cause of fissured tongue is unknown. It may be a natural variation of tongue anatomy. It’s a harmless condition with no treatment.
Doctors advise people with a fissured tongue to practice good oral hygiene. They encourage brushing the tongue to keep food particles from gathering in the grooves.
Geographic tongue results from the loss of papillae on the tongue’s surface. It may look like red patches with white borders that migrate around the tongue.
No one knows the cause of geographic tongue, though possible risk factors include allergies, genetics, and stress. It’s harmless and typically causes no other symptoms.
While there’s no cure for a geographic tongue, your doctor can prescribe a topical treatment if you experience discomfort.
Black hairy tongue is a temporary, benign condition that makes the tongue look dark and furry. It comes from a buildup of dead cells on the lingual papillae.
When the papillae grow longer than normal, they can become stained by food, drink, and bacteria. The appearance may be concerning, but black hairy tongue is harmless and causes no pain.
You can typically get rid of black hairy tongue within a few days of practicing good oral hygiene.
Though rarer than the other conditions on this list, cancer can affect the tongue. Risk factors for developing tongue cancer include tobacco and alcohol use and the human papillomavirus (HPV).10
Oral cancer can affect the tongue’s top, sides, or base. Symptoms include lumps or sores on the tongue, pain in the mouth or throat, trouble swallowing, and voice changes.
Treatment for tongue cancer may involve surgery, radiation, and/or chemotherapy.
The tongue is a complex digestive organ comprising muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. It plays an essential role in eating, swallowing, and speaking. The taste buds on the tongue’s surface allow us to experience the taste and texture of foods.
Your tongue should be pink in color with a whitish coating. Eight intrinsic and extrinsic muscles comprise the tongue, innervated by five nerves and supported by multiple blood vessels. Knowing the anatomy of the tongue helps us understand how it works and what makes it healthy.
Some conditions may affect the tongue’s anatomy and function, including ankyloglossia (tongue tie), fissured tongue, geographic tongue, black hairy tongue, and cancer. You can keep your tongue healthy by practicing good oral hygiene and visiting the dentist regularly.
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